‘Heart Berries’ describes the rough places

Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries (Counterpoint, 2018; available from BookPeople) gives an important perspective on interpreting one’s own emotions and place in the world.

Mailhot, who is from Seabird Island Band, transcribes her experience with a psychiatric hospitalization. She shares what mental illness means to her:

“I am sick or possessed. The spirits used to possess the people. We called it ‘Indian sick,’ and it was the first illness to be accounted for. It begins with want, with taking, and ends with a silence that hurts and makes us beg. There were stories about the cures and causes. Women tried to eat soapberries, or nothing, and talked about how we all had it coming. When the first children died it was too late to stop talking. … The only thing, the right thing — the thing that brought about our immunity — was the knowledge that something instinctual would carry us back. The awareness that our ancestors were watching was vital.” (p. 15)

So much happens in these few sentences. “I am sick” gives us the simplest possible assessment of the situation on the ground, the assessment likely to be understood by the greatest number of people. She immediately grounds it culturally: “the spirits used to possess the people” is a mythological narrative, followed by “we called it ‘Indian sick'” which is a lesson on language and history, then “it begins with want, with taking” which is about how those particular sufferers experienced this sickness. “When the first children died” is a memorial to those who were lost. Then, the faith in redemption: “something instinctual would carry us back.” What is happening now will become part of all of this history: “our ancestors were watching.”

This small book accomplishes a lot. This is a lesson in how to describe those patches that are very nearly unexplainable.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: